A jury in Riverside County returned a verdict of $150 million in a recent case where an employee gas turbine technician, Daniel Collins, was killed after he was struck by a fuel filter cover that blew off the equipment he was working on.[i] This outrageous verdict reflects a shocking yet foreseeable trend—plaintiff’s attorneys in California are compelling jurors to award excessive sums of money, far beyond fair compensation for their clients. A nuclear verdict is a jury verdict that is outrageous and often based on juror anger and fear.
Collins v. CPV Sentinel Energy, LLC
On August 23, 2022, a Riverside County, California, jury awarded $150 million to plaintiffs Denise and Christopher Collins, Mr. Collins’ widow and son. Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit, alleging, among other things, various defendants hired by CPV Sentinel Energy, LLC to build the plant were liable for Mr. Collins’ death due to negligence.
Daniel Collins died on March 6, 2017, when an explosion occurred as he was removing a lid from a high-pressure natural gas line at the Sentinel Energy Center located just outside Palm Springs. The jury found defendant Diamond Generating Corporation (“DGC”) 97% responsible for the death of Daniel Collins, who was 47 at the time of his death. DGC provided services for CPV, including, according to plaintiff, ones related to safety at the Sentinel Energy Center.[ii]
During trial, the plaintiff argued the last time a hands-on training was conducted at the plant where Mr. Collins was killed was back in 2013. Plaintiff pointed out to the jury that the current plant manager testified the accident happened due to a systems failure. Plaintiff likely angered the jury by painting a vivid picture of a corporate defendant failing to use reasonable care and causing harm to one of its employees. Plaintiff recited quotes from the depositions taken of high-level executives and managers of the corporation to support his contention that defendant failed to use reasonable care which added risk of harm to its workers. The anger plaintiff incited may have motivated the jury to punish the corporation they felt was responsible for the death of one of its employees—a death which, plaintiff argued, was avoidable.
Instead of accepting responsibility, the defense attacked the actions of the plaintiff on the date of his death, pointing out Mr. Collins engaged in conduct outside the scope of his duties and failed to follow protocol. The defense strategy was futile. The defense should have acknowledged some responsibility. By accepting responsibility, defense could have assuaged jurors’ anger. Placing blame on Mr. Collins instead may have fueled the fire inciting more anger in the jurors towards the corporation.
The jury awarded past noneconomic damages for Collins’ wife in the amount of $5 million for the past 5 years and $54 million for the future 27 years of life based on the loss of her husband. Using actuarial tables, they demonstrated Daniel Collins was expected to live 32 years past his death. Jurors awarded Daniel Collins’ son $10 million past and $81 million future. The total verdict added up to $150 million dollars, with 97% attributed to negligence of DGC, 2% to the subsidiary of DGC, and 1% to Collins.
Defense counsel can defuse the emotions of jurors who can be easily swayed to be sympathetic to plaintiff. With the right trial strategy and theme, jury verdicts will be more reasonable and jurors will not award the astounding numbers seen in Nuclear Verdicts®.
[i] Collins v. CPV Sentinel Energy, LLC, Cal. Sup. Ct., Case No. PSC1901096, (Jul. 27, 2022).
[ii] Closing Arguments, Collins v. CPV Sentinel Energy, LLC, Cal. Sup. Ct., Case No. PSC1901096, (Jul. 27, 2022), at 5-7.